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Royal Canadian Air Force vet flies WWII-era biplane

Allan McNeely celebrates 60th anniversary – of his first flight as a pilot – at the controls of 1943 Stearman.

Denise Goolsby, The Desert Sun 8:44 p.m. PST March 11, 2016

Cathy McNeely  was a little apprehensive when her 82-year-old husband announced he wanted to celebrate the 60th anniversary of his first flight as a pilot by flying a World War II-era, open-cockpit, U.S. Air Force Stearman biplane. He wanted to experience some loops and rolls for good measure.

Allan McNeely, who served with the Royal Canadian Air Force from 1955 to 1964, took his first flight as a pilot-in-training in March 1956.

“Let’s say I wasn’t overly excited, but it was something he wanted to do … I guess it was one of his dreams. He had a wonderful time,” said Cathy.

The couple lives four months of the year in Palm Desert and the rest of their time at their residence in British Columbia, Canada.

“I haven’t flown aerobatics for about nine years, so I’m looking forward to getting a chance to do that in an aircraft that’s really designed for it,” he said.

Allan, who flies Cessna 172s back home, is a decades-long member of Canada’s Civil Air Search and Rescue Association. For search and rescue duty, he pilots a Cessna 177 Cardinal.

“The aircraft I usually fly … is not designed for aerobatics –  not a good idea to do them in the 172,” he said, laughing. “Down here, I’m taking advantage of the opportunity to get up in a Stearman. I’ve always wanted to go up in those open cockpits.”

Allan met pilot Tom Ackland, a U.S. Navy vet and owner of a gorgeous, 1943 Stearman, on Thursday morning near Ackland’s hangar at the Bermuda Dunes Airport.

From left, Allan McNeely and Tom Ackland before takingBuy Photo

From left, Allan McNeely and Tom Ackland before taking off from Bermuda Dunes Airport in Ackland’s 1943 Stearman biplane on Thursday, March 10, 2016 (Photo: Denise Goolsby/The Desert Sun)

The plane’s paint job, which represented the U.S. Air Force markings of the day, was sharp, with a blue body and yellow/goldish wings, tail and stabilizer. The colors are reminiscent of the throwback San Diego Chargers uniforms.

After a brief chat, Tom pulled out two Navy and gold parachutes. They’d not only serve as life-saving devices in the event of an emergency but were also used as seat cushions. He helped Allan into the cumbersome equipment before stepping into his own parachute.

From left, Tom Ackland helps Allan McNeely with hisBuy Photo

From left, Tom Ackland helps Allan McNeely with his parachute before taking off from Bermuda Dunes Airport in Ackland’s 1943 Stearman biplane on Thursday, March 10, 2016. (Photo: Denise Goolsby/The Desert Sun)

Tom gave the propeller a couple of good turns – looked like he was loosening up his ‘ole aircraft for the flight ahead – then led Allan up a stepstool, over a wing and into the front cockpit where he delivered rapid-fire directions about how to deploy the chute. Tom took his place in the rear cockpit.

Once the two were strapped into their five-point seat belts and their throwback-style helmets were pulled into place, the duo prepared for takeoff. Suddenly, the engine roared, the prop spun into action and the aircraft taxied slowly between the hangars and on to the runway.

Tom Ackland’s 1943 Stearman biplane heads for the runwayBuy Photo

Tom Ackland’s 1943 Stearman biplane heads for the runway at Bermuda Dunes Airport on Thursday, March 10, 2016. (Photo: Denise Goolsby/The Desert Sun)

After running about 200 yards down the tarmac, the aircraft lifted up into the clear, blue skies.

Back at the couple’s Palm Desert Greens home, Cathy waited for the aircraft to appear in the skies above the community, the first destination in the planned 45-minute flight.

“I saw him coming over the house here, but I couldn’t get my camera operational in time,” she said Friday.

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